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The age of Trump spells the end of the Zionist dream

When Israel backs an American regime that threatens our liberty as humans and our safety as Jews, the claim that Zionism protects Jews no longer holds.

By Ben Lorber

Protesters near the prime minister's residence, demonstrating against Trump’s recent refugee and Muslim ban, Jerusalem, January 29, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Protesters near the prime minister’s residence, demonstrating against Trump’s recent refugee and Muslim ban, Jerusalem, January 29, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

For most American Jews, Donald Trump‘s regime has ushered in the most profound and destabilizing existential crisis since the Holocaust. We watch in horror as President Trump launches a full-frontal assault on the institutions, and the very principles, of the liberal democracy upon which we have built our lives for generations. We stand aghast as his administration tramples the civil liberties of our Muslim, immigrant and refugee neighbors, and we brace ourselves as a potent anti-Semitism simmers at the edges of the alt-right movement that helped propel him to power.

American Jewish establishment and legacy institutions, which already possessed little relevance for many of us, seem ill-equipped to guide us through this new reality. And the State of Israel, far from standing with us against this fascist menace, appears to be egging it on. As we all weather the short-term shocks Trump inflicts upon the political and civic institutions of American life, the full reverberations of this longer-term shock have yet to be felt by American Jewry. In the future, the era of Trump will be remembered as the end of the Zionist dream.

The internal crisis the mainstream Jewish American community faces is far more profound than we are willing to admit. For almost a century, the tradition of democratic liberalism in America has provided the bulk of white Jews in the U.S. with safety, prosperity, and a stable modern identity. Across the country, we have built a vibrant network of communal institutions, and poured our energies into strengthening the fabric of American civic, cultural and political life. After the Holocaust, the democratic values of religious and political freedom and civic equality were central to our orientation in a changing world. Today, though a growing portion of our community has moved to the right on political and social issues, a sizable and disproportionate majority of American Jews retains liberal and progressive values.

Now, seemingly overnight, Trump’s attacks on the press, judicial institutions, human rights groups and other organs of democracy threaten to erode the foundations of the world that has been comfortable for many of us. And our well-established, amply-resourced communal and legacy institutions, like the Jewish Federations, have barely raised a tepid voice of protest against this onslaught. They were unable to anticipate, comprehend, or combat the startling surge of far-right populism and neo-fascism in this country, and the unprecedented resurgence of anti-Semitism brewing in its wake. Though they appear calm, our leaders, like most others in the country’s establishment political and civic landscape, tremble behind their doors.

Hundreds fill New York City's Washington Square Park to protest President Trump's decision to ban Muslim refugees from entering the U.S., January 26, 2017. (Gili Getz)

Hundreds fill New York City’s Washington Square Park to protest President Trump’s decision to ban Muslim refugees from entering the U.S., January 26, 2017. (Gili Getz)

And where is Israel to protect the Jews of America? Trump’s words and actions on International Holocaust Remembrance Day were a double affront to American Jewry. Not only did his administration’s statement fail to name the Jewish identity of the Holocaust’s primary victims, or the ideology of anti-Semitism that fueled their annihilation — on the very same day, he signed into law a Muslim ban chillingly reminiscent of America’s rejection of Jewish refugees that, in the 1930s, helped seal the fate of so many European Jews. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not only fail to speak out against any of this, but the next day, he praised Trump’s decision to build a border wall with a bombastic tweet meant to emulate the swagger of Trump himself.

Wrestling with an impossible contradiction

After the Holocaust, Israel came to be seen by many Jews the world over as an insurance policy, sworn to defend us forevermore against the reappearance of fascism on the world stage. But 70 years later, the world is divided anew into ultra-nationalist statesmen and stateless refugees, into powerful tyrants and defiant rebels. While a few American Jews back Trump, most of us strive to stand against this tyrant of our time. But what the U.S. Jewish community still has to confront is the reality that the government of Israel, along with a majority of its Jewish citizens, actively supports the Trump administration, which seems poised to legitimize Israel’s fever dreams of settlement expansion and annexation and to crush any remaining hope of Palestinian statehood.

It is true that thousands of the most committed religious settlers in the West Bank, as well as some far-right Zionist leaders like Meir Kahane, once called America home. However, most American Jewish Zionists — since the days of liberal leaders like Louis Brandeis and Stephen Wise — would place their Zionism squarely in the same tradition of American liberalism that has structured the rest of their lives. For years, these progressive Zionists have watched nervously as anti-democratic, illiberal forces have consumed the center of Israeli politics.

Regardless of whether this idea of a progressive Zionism actually reflects the reality unfolding in Israel/Palestine — I would argue that it never has — the point is that in order to remain morally consistent, American Jews must see their Israel as not only a Jewish state, but a democratic state as well. In the mainstream American Jewish imaginary, Zionism is akin to the civil rights movement of the Jewish people. It must offer the world, in the shape of Jewish liberation, a testament to the promise of universal human emancipation as well.

Donald Trump poses for a photo with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in New York, September 25, 2016. (Kobi Gideon / GPO)

Donald Trump poses for a photo with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in New York, September 25, 2016. (Kobi Gideon / GPO)

That’s why, as democratic norms have steadily eroded in Israel, American Jews have inwardly wrestled with an impossible contradiction. Over the years, more of us have chosen to speak out against Israel’s brutal occupation in the West Bank, its relentless bombardment of Palestinians in Gaza, its discriminatory two-tiered legal structure within its borders, and its denial of refugee rights. But the bulk of us have remained silent, because we were taught to trust that somehow, Israel’s troubling actions were necessary to protect the safety of Jews around the world.

But when Israel backs a regime, here in America, that threatens our liberty as humans and our safety as Jews, the claim that Zionism protects Jews no longer holds. An Israel that cheers on Goliath, as it raises its hand against the Davids of our world, is an Israel that has become startlingly unrecognizable to us. While mainstream American Jewry could choose to ignore the spread of ultra-nationalism and xenophobia in the far-off ‘Jewish homeland,’ when those same forces wash now upon our own shores, the familial resemblance and active collaboration between Trump and Netanyahu becomes impossible to ignore.

We enter the new fascist era with communal institutions that are unable to speak truth to power, and with a Jewish state that stands among the forces arrayed against us, one whose attacks on political dissent and denial of basic rights to Palestinians serve as a disturbing roadmap to where the U.S. may be headed. Though the bulk of liberal American Jewry has until now remained silent, in the era of Trump, there grows in their gut a dizzying disorientation.

A widening rift

By the time the Trump nightmare finally crashes into flames — as all such nightmares eventually do — and these liberal American Jews get up, rub their eyes and look around, their gaze will turn in despondence towards Jerusalem. Where once stood their progressive Israel — their ‘light unto the nations,’ symbol of the holy values of democracy and human freedom, spiritual rock of resistance against all tyranny and oppression — they will now face a state that, from their vantage point, looks no different than the monster they just helped chase out of their American homeland. The realization that, two generations after the Holocaust, the State of Israel allied itself with the forces of global fascism will be too much for liberal Zionism to bear.

As more and more American Jews face this reality, their sense of betrayal will be immense. As a community, our process of collective mourning and teshuvah (repentance) will be difficult. Our identity as American Jews, supported so long by the foundation-stone of liberal Zionism, will be in crisis. It will take some of our elders a while to admit it, and some never will, but in our hearts we will know that a state which cheered on the tyrant who raised his hand against us can no longer be our Jewish state. With the Zionist dream dead, what Jewish vision will guide us into the future? How will we rebuild?

Over the next few years, the twin barbarisms of the Trump and Netanyahu regimes will continue to dovetail, and the rift between Israel and the bulk of American Jewry will continue to widen. While a few American Jews will cast their lot with Trump, Netanyahu and the rising global forces of fascism, hundreds of thousands more will overcome the inertia of our mainstream institutions and take to the streets to defend our lives and communities against tyranny. Through this experience of struggle, American Jews will reconnect to the social movements from which, for too long, too many of us have been estranged. We will re-learn the muscles of tzedek (justice) and tikkun olam (healing the world) which, for too long, too many of us had failed to put to use.

The old dream of a liberal Zionism will not survive to carry us through the 21st century. But out of the fire of our reborn commitment to our principles, a new diaspora Jewish identity can be formed, founded on prophetic values of social justice, solidarity and love. We will again bear witness to “mi-melech malche ha-melachim,” to a “king who rules over kings,” a force of divine righteousness greater than earthly power. Let us cleave to this vision, and this work, without fear, with a clear head and a strong moral compass. It is our only hope.

Ben Lorber works as a Campus Coordinator with Jewish Voice for Peace. The views expressed here are his own.

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    COMMENTS

    1. i_like_ike52

      Actually, today Israel is far more democratic than it was in the days of the basically MAPAI-monopoly regime. Then there was only state-controlled electronic media, whereas today multiple voices are able to be heard. MAPAI and Histradrut-controlled entities were sinkholes of corruption, today there is more accountability. There is far more tolerance for dissenting views than there was then when MAPAI-political correctness was the order of the day.

      This writer is one of the last of a disappearing breed, a “progressive” Zionists. Perhaps he hasn’t noticed that in many “progressive” circles. the word “Zionist” has become a synonym for “Fascist”, and the term “occupation” does NOT refer to 1967 but to 1948, and that “stolen Arab land” is not referring to the settlements in Judea/Samaria, but to Tel Aviv itself. Perhaps the writer believes that all his browbeating of Jews who supported Trump (more than just the “few” he referred to, but in reality a significant minority) and the Jews who support the settlements in Judea/Samaria will clear him with the true international “progressive” crowd, but it won’t. That is why antisemitism is spreading like wildfire among “progressive” circles. “Progressive” Jews are going to have to choose sides….Israel/Zionism/Judaism or negation of ALL of them.

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        This is the sheerest propaganda. Salted with the “anti-Semitism” bugaboo.* You just can’t stop trying to make it a binary choice between “Israel/Zionism/Judaism/settlements or negation of ALL of them.” Which erases all intelligent distinctions. Which erasure you need to cover your organized crime project.

        * Anti-Semitism, for Netanyahu and much of the Israeli and Jewish press, is clickbait. Mention it and you can all but guarantee almost automatic outrage. Just like advertisers can avoid talking about why a car is expensive by using sexual imagery or even the word “sex” to sell it, the Israeli government can dodge difficult questions about its policy by “anti-Semitizing” those who raise these questions….”
        read more: https://972mag.com/lets-talk-about-what-unesco-resolution-does-say-instead-of-what-it-doesnt/12262

        Reply to Comment
    2. i_like_ike52

      Is this Ben our Ben?
      Obama once said “elections have consequences”. The writer can rant all he wants about “impending fascism” and “Trump the tyrant” but he seems to forget that he won the election. Trump got slightly less than half the popular vote, but considering that something like half of the potential voters didn’t bother to show up at the polls to vote against Trump, then we see that a large majority of Americans apparently don’t view Trump in the same hysterical terms that the “progressives” do. Add to that the fact that the Republicans control both Houses of Congress and the majority of state houses and governorship. Given all this, the “progressives” ought to ask themselves why the majority of the American people reject the “progressives” world view. If they are going to simply reject all those who oppose their views as “racists, homophobes, Islamophobes, fascists, etc, etc, etc” and not try to reach out to their fellow Americans who oppose them and understand THEIR concerns, they are ultimately condemning themselves to political oblivion, particularly if the resort to increasing hysterical tones and violent demonstrations.

      Reply to Comment
      • Ray

        Trump won a competition between (to paraphrase South Park) a Douchebag and a Turd Sandwich. Hillary couldn’t mobilize her supporters because she’s a political chameleon with no true self or deeply-held views of her own, and because the Democratic Party leadership was complacent and arrogant to think that they could win with the same old strategy of “Vote for us, because we’re not the Republicans.” As you yourself admit, turnout was low; people didn’t feel motivated to vote for lesser-evilism. That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement of Donald Trump.

        Reply to Comment
        • i_like_ike52

          Of course, it also works the other way. The low turnout indicates that there was no ringing endorsement of anti-Trumpism. Don’t forget that a lot of reliable Democratic constituencies, including blacks and Bernie people had a lower turnout. They either weren’t worried about Trump, or they were following Lenin’s dictum “the worse things are, the better they are” feeling that getting the Clinton’s out of the way would open the way for more hard-line “progressives” to take over the party.

          Reply to Comment
    3. i_like_ike52

      I find the complaint about Trump not mentioning Jews on International Holocaust Day quite disengenuous. Good “progressives” like Canada’s Justin Trudeau and EU spokesman have done the same thing and it didn’t raise the ire of the “progressives”. Had Obama also done this, the writer would have praised him for not particularizing the Holocaust but universalizing it as yet another manifestation of “intolerance” and that Jews shouldn’t focus on their own victimization, but should encompass all of mankind in their concern.

      Reply to Comment
    4. R5

      Ben’s got a big problem with the timing here. Trump was elected IN SPITE OF massive Jewish American support for Clinton (and fence-sitting from Israel, which like everyone else expected Clinton to win). Trump’s victory showed BDS Jews that no matter how much they suck up to BLM and the so-called progressive far left, the far left can lose BIG TIME, even to scum like Steve Bannon. Which all of sudden makes America look pretty wobbly for Jews, and makes Zionism look more like the Jewish future. So what does Ben do? He panics, because the idea that America is safe and the argument for permanent diaspora has been shattered. Ben’s solution is to blame Israel for Trump’s victory after the fact. Which is doesn’t make any sense, and is probably just Ben being dishonest and trying to divert attention from the utter failure of JVP to articulate a viable anti-Zionist future for Jews in the age of Trump.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Mark

      How very simplistic. All that has happened is that the penny has finally dropped that Netenyahu is a scumbag with a whole set of lousy policies. If there’s a vision for the future it isn’t clear what it will be other than permanent occupation.

      This situation has come about because of the collapse of the left in Israel. I have recently come into more and more contact with rather extreme leftists and it seems to me they are exceptionally naive and poor readers of what is going on. Israel is always at fault. Their way forward isn’t remotely progressive, no matter the number of times they drop words like racist, homophobic and islamophobic into the conversation.

      Reply to Comment
      • Lewis from Afula

        It doesn’t matter who runs USA – Trump, Clinton, or Obama. Israel is thriving and growing – in terms of both population and economy.

        The fakestinians? Well, they are represented by an ex-Holocaust Denier / ex-terrorist who is in the 12th year of a 5 year term and a bunch of religious loons in Aza.

        Reply to Comment